There is something almost sinister in just how good The xx are, in how perfectly polished and finely crafted they are; a bizarre sense, in a way, that they are somehow playing with us, fucking around with us, like cats with mice who are enjoying producing some of the most high gloss and aesthetically pleasing indie-pop available, all the while giving off the impression that not only is it easy for them, but that they are not even trying. Everything on Coexist is so perfectly put together — the shimmering guitars, spartan percussion, elegant vocal lines — one finds themselves almost, almost put off by it; almost, by the sheer scientific purity of it all, except it is, for the most part, so well crafted that instead of being too cold and turning one off, it instead develops a rather strange sensation, one of being almost too good to be enjoyable.
The songs of The xx are like Piet Mondrian’s Composition paintings: pleasing, not in spite of, but because of, their simplicity. The smatterings of percussion, and, more importantly, the swelling backdrops, serve as the bold lines, painted with dashes of colors, the same tone but in two different shades, of vocals, the blue and red blocks so similar and different at the same time. Like the Composition works, the various components of Coexist seemingly blend together, variations on a theme, and they too rely on a simple color scheme: one composed of electric blues and pinks and purples, all cold and brilliant. All of the musical aspects seem to move in one direction, like brushstrokes, creating flat blocks of sound and even flatter lyrics — the better with which to stay minimalist — upon which sparkling details can be applied, their jagged little arrangement, like Mondrian’s black lined boxes, providing only the illusion of division and chaos, stopping and going seemingly wherever they will while remaining, in reality, as composed as ever, faux plasmic pieces in a grandly designed sound, a sound that is scientific, and frigid, and enjoyable.
Opener “Angels” follows the traditional dream pop-esque binary star notes in space structure, wherein a delicate guitar rotates and shines, almost alone, as the other elements slowly play off or build upon it, the dominant one, in this case, being Romy Medley Croft’s vocals. There are slight builds here and there, which one discovers is the way for all of Coexist, delayed gratification without ever climaxing, but for the most part “Angels” is content to sit there and rotate in space, spinning pretty and unimportantly until the dust around it begins to coalesce into “Chained.” A slow driver, Croft is joined by Oliver Sim, her fraternal twin component, and the first rumblings of percussion and pop sensibility. As Sim is to Croft, “Fiction” is to “Chained,” a song ever so similar yet of its own. “Try” breaks the mold, somewhat, and feels in particular like The xx taunting us, crafting an eerie, alien siren on to their perfect world and daring us not to revel in their carefully scripted dichotomy.
Croft and Sim dip into a remarkable amount of soul on “Tide,” a cut that feels almost organic when compared to its brethren. This departure, slight as it may be, is foreshadowed by “Missing,” which practically bursts, by The xx’s standards, a little less than a minute and a half into its existence, a rare jolting from the band. “Tide” is less fragmented, but far more shocking, its driving bass line and sweet guitar a rather stark contrast to the laboratory sound present on the majority of Coexist.
That laboratory, that space, as beautiful and perfect as it is, is also extremely fatiguing due to that very same beauty and perfection. By the end of Coexist, one is begging for something more, something sloppy and visceral and with some emotional heft, some sort of break, for the pretty lights in the darkness to turn all the way up and dazzle us not with their simplicity but with their grandeur. It is a selfish wish, to want even more from a perfectly fine album, but it is a sincere one, and one The xx have brought upon themselves.
(XL Recordings, 304 Hudson Street, 7th Floor, New York, NY 10013)